Portsmouth reports on Irene and Sandy reveal strengths and (some) gaps

Portsmouth's "after-action" reports from Irene (l) and Sandy (r) .

Over the weekend, the town of Portsmouth posted to the town web site a promised "after action" report on all departments' response to Hurricane Sandy. Coupled with a similar report for Hurricane Irene which was obtained by harddeadlines through an Access to Public Records Act request, the documents show a significant improvement in the Town's response to this year's event, at least based on their internal assessment.

Most notable, perhaps, were the improved capabilities and performance of the Portsmouth Emergency Operations Center (EOC itself. During a major storm, the EOC serves as the command center to coordinate Town response. During Irene, the report details serious issues, including communications failures (800mHz, RI Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA), and telephone) which left them dependent on ham radio for some links. Other problems included insufficient staffing and basic infrastructure problems like the lights not being wired to emergency power.

The EOC list for Sandy is less threatening: a printer failed, there was a "trip hazard" from an extension cord, and the Internet Public Information (IPI) volunteers were unable to access Skype.

The IPI team was one of the new initiatives created to address feedback from Irene, according to Portsmouth Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director John King in the November 9 edition of the weekly half-hour cable access show Portsmouth This Week. As IPI team leader Rich Talipsky explained during that same show, one challenge was that the team needed more volunteers to provide 24x7 coverage for the duration of the storm. (Interested Portsmouth residents can find out more on the Portsmouth Emergency Preparedness web site.)

That's not to say that everything was perfect this time. Among the issues identified in the Sandy review are overloaded dispatch lines at Police department, the need for better pet sheltering information for the public, and insufficient staffing at the Department of Public Works. The Portsmouth School District came in for criticism for delaying their decision to close the schools.

But compared to the list of issues identified during Irene, those seem to be more manageable. Consider that, according to the Irene report, there was a generator issue at the Lawton reservoir and that we "came within 24 hours of a no-water situation," or that there were multiple communication failures at the EOC, or that the report admits, in a classic bit of bureaucratese understatement: "media notifications insufficient."

It's worth noting that Portsmouth voluntarily produced the Sandy report and posted it to their web site while the Hurricane Irene report had to be pried out of the Town.

I received the Irene report from the Town Solicitor a week ago, but held publication until the town released the Sandy report, since I think it's in the best interests of the community to read them side by side.

Having been in some of the meetings where access to the Irene report was denied because it contained "operational information," my estimate is that we owe our new Town Administrator John Klimm thanks for pushing the new policy of transparency. I'd encourage fellow citizens to take a look at both reports and also submit your feedback to the town through their online survey.

Full disclosure: I was a member of the IPI and resigned in protest on Friday, October 26 when Portsmouth EMA had yet to post any information about the impending storm. While I am encouraged by the response to Sandy, I continue to withhold judgement on whether the lessons about the appropriate role of advance communication have been baked in to policies and procedures.

And, of course, while I understand that that the Town needs to balance security and privacy against the public's right to know, and while I respect RIGL 38-2-2, as a journalist and citizen, I never like to see redactions.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, Sandy

Portsmouth reverses course on debris pickup, deletes EMA post

Screen Shot 2012-10-30 at 3.55.16 PM.png
Forgot to remove it from Facebook, guys.

In a sudden reversal, just hours after Portsmouth EMA posted a note saying that the Department of Public Works (DPW) would not pick up yard debris from Sandy, they posted an e-mail from DPW director Dave Kehew saying that residents could place branches curbside by Nov 7.

Good job by DPW being responsive, but a bad job by Portsmouth EMA for trying to cover their tracks by deleting the original post. That's not transparency.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, flooding, Sandy

Portsmouth "working on" helping with Sandy yard debris

According to a post on the Portsmouth EMA blog, just as it was in the initial aftermath of Irene, the Town of Portsmouth will not be helping residents with yard debris, although they're "working on" it.

Disposal of Storm Yard Debris
Posted on October 30, 2012
Due to a current Town ordinance, the Town DPW cannot assist in the dosposal of private storm yard debris.  We are working on a potential waiver of the ordinance for the Town to help with Sandy yard debris

They had a whole year to figure this out.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, flooding, Sandy

Portsmouth Council President Joe Robicheau responds to Sandy info concerns

Portsmouth Town Council President Joe Robicheau has responded to the questions I sent Thursday, after he sent me the same "Somali piracy" letter to the editor already posted on Patch. Since my guess was that the more pressing issue on most residents's minds was the approach of Sandy, I asked the following questions:

  1. Why are you sending non-time-sensitive political letters today, instead of communicating to residents of Portsmouth about the impending storm?
  2. What steps have you, as Town Council President, taken to address the problems in communication and organization that happened in the run up to Irene last year?
  3. Middletown is posting storm updates on their home page and Facebook (compare Middletown's home page to Portsmouth's -- attached) -- why is Portsmouth not doing this?
  4. What would you say to reassure Island Park residents?

Town Council President Joe Robicheau's unedited responses follow.

Hello John,

1. I disagree that tolls on the Sakonnet Bridge is a non-time-sensitive issue. The threatened toll is the absolute largest issue facing people in Newport and Bristol counties and the window of opportunity to overturn the initiative is very narrow. We must pursue the Governor and General Assembly with all haste.

As far as the storm goes there is nothing to communicate to residents. It is merely considered a Weather Event. It could certainly develop into something more ominous. Until then it would be unwise to de-sensitize residents with premature warnings.

2. There was most definitely confusion in the Island Park neighborhood relative to evacuation during Irene. Since then, the administration has taken steps to improve public outreach with the able assistance of dedicated civic volunteers Gary Gump, Rich Talipsky and Doug Smith. I understand their efforts are coordinated by Portsmouth Emergency Management coordinator John King. Additionally, the Council has budgeted for, and the Town has installed a reverse “911” system, Code Red, with which to communicate information to residents. This system is supplemental to Police, Fire, and DPW assets.

3. Portsmouth spends more resources on Schools than Middletown. Middletown has an IT staff of 3, and a Town Engineer. Portsmouth is pursuing use of social media and will integrate it as time and resources permit.

4. Island Park is the most vulnerable residential area on Aquidneck Island. Portsmouth Police and Fire Departments are well aware of our most fragile residents and will assist them, specifically, if required. All other residents in the neighborhood should keep informed via radio and television outlets as to the track and timing of the storm. The Town will use all means at its disposal to communicate an evacuation notice should it be required. Information specific to Portsmouth will be posted on the Town’s website. Portsmouth Emergency Management is tracking the storm, Sandy, and the latest information can be obtained at Additionally, residents can monitor AM radio stations WADK 1540 and WSAR 1480, Portsmouth Emergency Facebook page, and follow developments on Twitter @PortsmouthEmerg.

I am not the mayor of Portsmouth. I am an elected legislator. As President of the Council, however, I am responsible for declaring a state of emergency and storm driven evacuations. Accordingly, I am updated routinely by the RIEMA, Portsmouth EMA and the Town Administrator. If necessary I will be in radio contact with Town staff should events require my attention.

I hope this information is helpful.

Joe Robicheau

Let's see. 1. Scary messages on tolls are not desensitizing but storm information is? Everyone from the Governor to the Portsmouth Library has posted storm info, but for the Town to offer specifics would be desensitizing. Okay. 2. The first Council vote on the reverse 911 system actually failed. 3. Robicheau blames the school budget for the lack of resources to inform citizens. Well played, sir. 4. Not sure what the Town has done since last year when "all means at its disposal to communicate an evacuation notice" amounted to hearing about it online and nobody home at Town Hall. We'll see what the APRA request turns up.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, flooding, Sandy, Joe Robicheau

Portsmouth posts Hurricane Sandy info

Late this afternoon, the Town of Portsmouth posted storm preparation info on the Town web site, the Portsmouth Emergency Management site, and the EMA Facebook page. According to the posting:

"Portsmouth Town Administrator John Klimm held a late Friday afternoon meeting with Town department leaders and emergency management personnel to insure that the Town is prepared for anything that Hurricane Sandy might deliver to Portsmouth."

Thanks to Mr. Klimm for making this happen.

And Portsmouth EMA has a Twitter feed as well, and has suggested the hash tag #Sandy02871. If you're on Twitter, we can all use that hash tag to share situation reports and communicate directly with EMA during the storm.

I would urge everyone in Portsmouth, especially my neighbors here in Island Park, to bookmark these sites. And to all the folks at Town Hall, thanks.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, flooding, Sandy

Is Portsmouth prepared for Sandy? How do we know?

Left: Middletown home page, Right: Portsmouth.

With all eyes along the East Coast watching the approach of Hurricane Sandy, what has the Town of Portsmouth done to demonstrate to residents that there were lessons learned from the communication failures of Irene? As of today, not much, which has led me to remove my name from the list of communications volunteers and file an Access to Public Records Act request for the after-action report on last year's storm.

Screen Shot 2012-10-25 at 2.35.49 PM.png
OMG, did the people who posted this complete FEMA ICS-100 and ICS 700.a training?

Yesterday, the Town of Middletown posted three updates to Facebook. Newport posted a preparedness checklist. Portsmouth Patch did stories. Even the Portsmouth Public Library posted to their Facebook wall about preparing for the storm.

From the town of Portsmouth and their Emergency Management team? Crickets.

This, despite a Portsmouth EDC survey that found 60% of respondents felt the Town's communication before Irene was inadequate or poor.

Town Council President Joe Robicheau sent me an e-mail yesterday. Not, as one might hope, with an update about the storm, but the same letter he posted on Patch, accusing the general assembly of Somali-style piracy over Sakonnet Bridge tolls.

Where was President Robicheau during Irene? I replied to his e-mail asking what he had to say to reassure residents of Island Park (who, last year, were subject to an incoherently communicated and haphazardly enforced evacuation order). He has not yet replied.

But this is not just about political differences with Mr. Robicheau, which I freely admit I have. Or vice-president Judi Staven, who, according to remarks posted on Patch, suggested what might be charitably described as an extremely limited role for Town government in communicating public safety information. "If we have a hurricane, turn your TV on. That's how I found out about Hurricane Irene." (See entry at 8:23 pm.)

The problem, I fear, is systemic. I have tried to be part of the solution. After the debacle of Irene, I volunteered with Portsmouth Emergency Management (EMA) to help with communication. Several dedicated volunteers jumped through hoops -- including online courses to obtain FEMA certification. In order to update Facebook.

But despite what appears to be a adequate planning effort, there has been no improvement in communication with the public.

There has been a policy of only using social media to communicate in the most dire conditions. In fact, I was told by the Portsmouth Emergency Manager, John King, that he had even received pushback over my posting about the tabletop exercise the Town conducted back in August. I was asked not to report on the content of EMA volunteer meetings, at which point I threatened to leave.

As a side note, you won't believe what was required to convince our Town's IT consultant that it was even possible to use Facebook. Pointing out that neighboring towns were using it quite happily — that hundreds of state and local governments were using it — could not sway them from some unspecified concerns about security.

At least, finally, Portsmouth EMA has both a blog and a Facebook page but even as of this afternoon, all they are doing is reposting weather reports.

The purpose of advance communication is to reassure the public. Portsmouth is failing. Again.

Full disclosure: I live in Island Park, 14 feet above mean high tide, and we followed the Town's mandatory evacuation order last year. While I'm very glad that the Escape Bridge now provides us a second method of egress from Island Park, I remain deeply concerned about the Town's response.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene, flooding, Sandy, Joe Robicheau

Hurricane Exie slams Portsmouth (with virtual winds)

Portsmouth officials review evacuation plans in the Emergency Operations Center.

When the Portsmouth Emergency Operations Center (EOC) started monitoring Hurricane Exie, it was a Cat 2 storm some 350 miles east of Brunswick, GA, but four days later, it was battering Rhode Island with sustained winds of over 100mph registered at Town Hall.

Fortunately, Hurricane Exie was a only a simulation.

But for the leaders of town departments who convened for a "tabletop" exercise at the Portsmouth fire station today, it seemed very real.

Chiefs and assistants from the Police and Fire Departments, the head of DPW, the Town Administrator and finance director, a representative from Portsmouth Water, and two EMA volunteers watched as Portsmouth Emergency Management director John King ran the Hurrevac software that marched the slow-moving storm up the coast. King rolled the simulation forward in six-hour increments and chaired "EOC meetings" as the town worked through its response.

It rapidly became obvious that a significant concern of everyone in the room was the north end.

"Almost 15% of the Town's population is in Island Park and Common Fence Point," said King, as participants surveyed FEMA flood maps and evacuation charts. With Island Park, the risk of storm surge and flooding is direct, King noted, but even the higher ground of Common Fence Point comes with a risk. "It effectively becomes an island."

And so, 48 hours ahead of the arrival of tropical-storm-force winds, the group began to consider evacuation plans. The official time projection for evacuating Newport County built into the software was 7 hours, King said, but noted that Portsmouth only takes about five. Still, with the time required for communication and mobilization, that puts the decision point well ahead of the arrival of the storm.

The group shared their obvious concerns. "It's been so long since we've had a major storm that people won't get out," said Town Administrator John Klimm. "Look at other locations around the country," said Police Chief Lance Hebert, citing North Carolina and Florida. "Even there, the majority of people only leave 12 hours before." One of the volunteers noted the added communication challenge presented by the events surrounding Irene last year.

"Studies show that a resident has to hear about the evacuation from three different sources before it really sinks in," said King. "Public education is our best tool to let people know we've dodged a few bullets but really bad things can happen in those two areas."

With the installation of the Town's new CodeRed "reverse 9-11" system — which should be operational soon — and a new Facebook page and web site set to be rolled out for Emergency Management, the group hoped that some of the need for advance information could be met. For those not as comfortable with technology, the non-emergency lines at both the Police and Fire departments would be staffed, ready to handle the anticipated influx of calls.

Portsmouth EMA Director John King surveys the track of Hurricane Exie.

And as the simulation rolled forward to the day before the hurricane, the group made the decision to put out the evacuation order. "Effective at 6am tomorrow, unless you hear otherwise," said King. "We need to tell people to keep their eyes and ears open."

The group discussed the logistical challenges posed by Gaudet School in Middletown being designated as the new consolidated Red Cross shelter for Aquidneck Island. Unlike the shelter at PMS, the Red Cross will not allow animals at this location. "Pets are the number one reason people don't evacuate," said King. "I don't know how we address that at Gaudet." With less than 12 hours left on the clock, the group planned their internal communication options, discussed the 24-hour staffing of the EOC, and ticked off the touch points needed with the state and non-governmental organizations.

Then Hurricane Exie arrived. It seemed that the team had made a good call, as the storm tracked slightly east of earlier projections, bringing the area of strongest winds into line with Aquidneck Island. By the time the evacuation was complete, Rhode Island was beginning to experience tropical force winds. They picked up throughout the afternoon, knocking out telephone and internet and closing the bridges off the island.

"Where are the utility trucks?" asked Klimm.

"There are a half-dozen pre-staged at Turner Avenue," said Hebert.

Throughout the night, the storm continued to intensify, eventually knocking out even the public safety microwave links to the RIEMA headquarters. King noted the importance of having ham radios as backup.

After battering the island with 100+ mph winds for three hours, Exie began to drift off. With traffic lights out, and Hebert said they could ask for help from the National Guard, pre-positioned at the State Police Headquarters, as the DPW crews headed out to begin the cleanup. Although there was substantial wind damage across town, the hurricane's track meant that the storm surge missed the Sakonnet, and once again, Island Park and Common Fence Point escaped serious impact.

As the simulation wrapped up, the group was scribbling notes and planning next steps and additional meetings to finalize preparations.

Klimm called the session "really helpful." King expressed a note of cautious optimism. "It points out that we have a lot of work to do," he said, "But we have some action items."

Full disclosure: I am one of the EMA volunteers, and was a participant-observer in the exercise.

Localblogging, 02871, Bob, Irene

Island Park flooding and school bus safety: An open letter to the Portsmouth Town Council

Park Ave and Gormley school bus stop flooded

To: Portsmouth Town Council,,
Subject: Island Park flooding and school bus safety
Date: Thu, 08 Sep 2011 09:05:41 -0400

To the Town Council:
This morning, for the second time this week, heavy rains flooded Park Ave in Island Park, forcing schoolchildren to wade through ankle-deep water to board buses. On Tuesday, the streets were so impassable I had to use the Escape Bridge to drive my son to school.

Here's a photo from today:

And one from Tuesday:

While such flooding is not a new issue (Channel 12 reported on it back in December of 2009: it's not clear to me whether things have suddenly gotten worse, perhaps because Irene contributed to blockages in the stormwater drains.

Whatever the cause, I would appreciate it if the Town Council could investigate this issue affecting the safety of Island Park residents and our children.

I'm cc'ing school Supt. Dr. Krizic and School Committee chair Cynthia Perrotti so that they're aware of the situation, and copying in local media and Jay Edwards, our state rep.

Best Regards.

Full disclosure: I'm annoyed.

Localblogging, 02871, Schools, IP, Irene, flooding

Portsmouth Economic Development committee runs survey on Town's Irene response

The Portsmouth Economic Development Committee (PEDC) announced a new online survey of residents on the Town's response to Irene. They announced it on Facebook, where they have a presence — unlike the Town, which appears to rely on courier pigeons and precognition to warn people about things like mandatory evacuations. From the Facebook post:

What is your opinion of the town's response to Hurricane Irene? Some have called the town's public information operation totally inadequate. What do you think?

Take the new PEDC survey

Editorial note: The reference to "some" in their post almost certainly includes me, and I just want to be very clear: the Police, Fire, and DPW were out there doing their job; it was the communication and leadership from elected officials that I felt "lamentably poor."

Localblogging, 02871, Irene

Newport This Week cites Portsmouth blogger in Irene social media wrapup

Newport This Week (NTW) (the print companion of features comments from this editor in their wrapup of social media use around Hurricane Irene. If you can't grab a free copy at the many locations around the island, there's an online version here.

The story focuses on how citizens (and local businesses, and even National Grid) used social media to keep friends and neighbors informed, while governments like Newport and Portsmouth did not.

"I don't know about other towns, but Portsmouth did a lamentably poor job at communicating, specifically with residents in my neighborhood," said Portsmouth resident and local blogger John McDaid.

As McDaid, who pens the blog, notes, Island Park was the subject of a "mandatory" evacuation order. "I learned about that on Facebook," he said, "And not even from the Town of Portsmouth, which doesn't even HAVE a Facebook presence."

Instead, the town posted a notice on its municipal website, which he said, "is not a place I typically go for breaking news."

And do you know WHY Portsmouth has no presence on Facebook? According to an e-mail earlier this year from former Town Administrator Bob Driscoll, because our IT consultant nixed it over to security concerns. I have a query in to for their official response, and I intend to follow up with new Town Admin David Dolce.

NTW even gave me the kicker:

Concluded Portsmouth's McDaid: "I consider it a missed opportunity — to say the least — that local government and emergency response did not take advantage of social media during this critical time. While I think our community-based media performed admirably — and everyday friends and citizens stepped up to keep each other informed — the lack of any official word was troubling."

When I say community-based media, I'm explicitly thanking Portsmouth Patch and Newport Now, who were both out there on Twitter and Facebook. I spent the weekend refreshing feeds on my iPhone (plugged into the car charger) and that was how I kept up with the big picture.

And another big thank you to all my friends and neighbors in Portsmouth who kept posting what they were seeing. We kept each other in the loop, even if the Town didn't.

Localblogging, 02871, Irene